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The 1990s. An extraordinary decade in Europe. At its beginning, the old order collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. Everything seemed possible. Everyone hailed a brave new Europe. But no one knew what this new Europe would look like. Now we know. Most of Western Europe has launched into the unprecedented gamble of monetary union, though Britain stands aside. Germany, peacefully united, with its capital in Berlin, is again the most powerful country in Europe. The Central Europeans—Poles, Czechs, Hungarians—have made successful transitions from communism to capitalism and have joined NATO. But farther east and south, in the territories of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, the continent has descended into a bloody swamp of poverty, corruption, criminality, war, and bestial atrocities such as we never thought would be seen again in Europe.
Timothy Garton Ash chronicles this formative decade through a glittering collection of essays, sketches, and dispatches written as history was being made. He joins the East Germans for their decisive vote for unification and visits their former leader in prison. He accompanies the Poles on their roller-coaster ride from dictatorship to democracy. He uncovers the motives for monetary union in Paris and Bonn. He walks in mass demonstrations in Belgrade and travels through the killing fields of Kosovo. Occasionally, he even becomes an actor in a drama he describes: debating Germany with Margaret Thatcher or the role of the intellectual with Václav Havel in Prague. Ranging from Vienna to Saint Petersburg, from Britain to Ruthenia, Garton Ash reflects on how "the single great conflict" of the cold war has been replaced by many smaller ones. And he asks what part the United States still has to play. Sometimes he takes an eagle's-eye view, considering the present attempt to unite Europe against the background of a thousand years of such efforts. But often he swoops to seize one telling human story: that of a wiry old farmer in Croatia, a newspaper editor in Warsaw, or a bitter, beautiful survivor from Sarajevo.
His eye is sharp and ironic but always compassionate. History of the Present continues the work that Garton Ash began with his trilogy of books about Central Europe in the 1980s, combining the crafts of journalism and history. In his Introduction, he argues that we should not wait until the archives are opened before starting to write the history of our own times. Then he shows how it can be done.
"This is a kind of writing—it could be called the history of the present—for which it is not easy to find examples in earlier literature. . . . Garton Ash is, in the most literal sense of the term, a contemporary historian. He writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well; for his own involvement in these events, emotional and intellectual, is of such intensity that he can speak, in a sense, from the inside as well as the outside. Yet the sense of the historic dimension of the events in question is never lost. And the quality of the writing places it clearly in the category of good literature." —George F. Kennan, on The Uses of Adversity
“Formidable. . . . [Garton Ash’s] strongest pieces combine a quick eye, a gift for concision and an ability to discern the deep currents of history in the restless waters of the present. Pith, prescience and intellectual passion often coalesce to provide a powerful European portrait.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Garton Ash is a fine historian, journalist and raconteur. . . . He has been at one time or another in most of the places that mattered during these turbulent times—Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Pristina, Berlin, Zagreb. . . . Journalism, history and literature come together . . . with elegance, erudition and skill.” —William Shawcross, Sunday Times (London)
“An excellent and coherent panorama which should be read by anyone who wishes to make sense of his own times.” —Daily Mail
“[Garton Ash is] the most eloquent reporter of post Cold War Europe. . . . He has the vivid intelligence of a Tocqueville and the unassumingly informed authority of a John Hersey. . . . We’ll still be reading Timothy Garton Ash in fifty years, not for what he predicted, but for what he saw.” —Glasgow Sunday Herald
“This is Garton Ash at his best, writing with both empathy and hardwon understanding. . . . [He is] an original thinker and a restless traveler.” —The Washington Monthly
“This intelligent, sensitive, multi-layered and wide-ranging book . . . raises fundamental questions not only about events in Eastern Europe since 1989 but also about the way history and our failure to understand it shape the present and the future.” —The Scotsman
“A coherent picture of the upheaval of our times. . . . Garton Ash is one of the most acute commentators on contemporary European politics. . . . He offers accounts of history unfolding before his eyes marked by the detached precision of a trained historian. But he also writes with considerable verve and wit. . . . Reading these fine essays, one is astonished at the richness and danger of our times—and grateful that Garton Ash is on hand to decipher the outlines of the newly emerging European order.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“History of the Present is my book of the year, a masterful blend of literate journalism and academic history.”
—Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)
“Magnificent . . . offers an abundance of riches. . . . Anyone who wants to better understand the last decade in Central Europe will benefit from reading this stimulating and perceptive book. . . . Authoritative and readable.” —BookPage
“Each of the portraits is a neat jewel. . . . It is astonishing how fresh most of the accounts remain. . . . [Garton Ash] does know the people in Central Europe who count; he listens intently and intelligently; and he writes with remarkable elegance.” —The Independent on Sunday
“Anyone gets a little smarter by reading Garton Ash. He’s the observer we all wish we could be. Unlike most journalists, he’s done all the reading and, more often than not, he speaks the language. Unlike most historians, he hungers to be where the action is, and writes with an immediacy and pungency that can be very effective, even memorable. . . . There is so much authority in Garton Ash’s work, it’s almost unnerving.” —San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
“History of the Present is the natural sequel to [Garton Ash’s] compelling, indispensable eyewitness writings about the season of revolutions around the year 1989. . . . Garton Ash holds a mirror that magnifies. . . . He writes masterfully and with compassion.” —The Observer
“Catches history on the hop. . . . The presiding spirit in this engrossing book is George Orwell. . . . [It] will prove invaluable to anyone attempting to put the 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe in perspective.” —Daily Telegraph